Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Caring for your Heirloom Quilts

We get inquiries in the conservation lab fairly often about how to hang heirloom quilts. Director of Preservation and Conservation Rick Kerschner wrote up these suggestions a few years ago and we've been distributing them on request.

I have a few cautions about mounting quilts on the wall. Once a quilt is mounted on the wall, it tends to stay up for a long time. Most textile conservators recommend limiting exhibition to 6 months to a year. At Shelburne, we take our quilts down every few years (we are only open 6 months a year) and rotate new ones onto display. I would encourage homeowners to also implement some reasonable schedule to rotate a quilt back to storage for at least an equal amount of time that it is being displayed. In general, we prefer to cover our quilts with Lexan (polycarbonate), Mylar, or Melinex whenever possible to protect them from dust and handling. I am sure that you probably have good filters on your furnace to filter out dust, but dust that is kicked up from the floor that never makes it into the HVAC system can still be a problem. For that reason, I would recommend that the bottom of the quilt be at least 2 feet above the floor.

Cleaning a quilt that has been hanging
1.Obtain a piece of plastic window screen and bind the edges so that they will not snag the textile.
2. Lay quilt flat.
3. Place the window screen on top of the quilt and, using a brush attachment on a HEPA vacuum with suction control set to low suction, vacuum both sides of the quilt. Avoid rubbing the brush attachment against the screening.

Vacuuming a quilt through a screen
Light and your quilt
Be sure to mount the quilt away from daylight, not just out of direct sunlight from a window, but away from any significant window light. Actually, the highest light levels are recorded in a home during the winter when the sun is low in the sky and can shoot in windows, and when there is snow on the ground to reflect the light into the house. Daylight will fade certain dyes on antique quilts very quickly, and can cause deterioration to fibers on fabrics that contain metal based mordants (iron-based mordants are found in brown-dyed cotton fabrics of the late nineteenth century). It is fine to light the quilt with track lights, but they should be mounted well back from the quilt (about 5 feet) and low wattage wide floods should be used to illuminate it (35 to 50 watt tungsten floods are best - the old fragile looking frosted kind, not the newer halogen lights, as they have too much UV radiation). If you can feel any heat on the back of your hand when it is held in front of the quilt, the lights are too close. It is better to try to get a low, even light on the entire quilt using several floods than to use one or two bright halogen bulbs and have too much light in some areas and a spotty appearance. It would be best if the light track could be on a separate switch so that it can be turned off without making the entire room dark.

Check with a conservator in your area for additional advice and ask to have light levels measured for the final installation. A conservator can be located through the American Institute for Conservation Referral Service.

Displaying quilts
Finally, there are other ways to display heirloom quilts:
1. Lightly folded at the bottom of a bed
2. Draped over a wide tube (6" diameter or more) mounted parallel to the wall (this displays half the quilt at a time and the quilt can be easily turned so that the other side is exposed to the "elements." No Velcro or other mounting mechanisms are required for this display method).
3. Very fragile and precious quilts are usually lightly folded in long and narrow acid-free storage boxes that can be stored under a bed or on a high closet shelf and brought out only occasionally for special guests. 

There are a number of other good resources on caring for heirloom textiles available on the internet. In particular, there are good general guides to caring for textiles on the American Institute for Conservation's website and the Textile Museum's website. The Philadelphia Museum of Art shares some of their techniques for storing historic garments and accessories on their site and the Minnesota  Historical Society shares their tips for storing flat textiles in boxes.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Guides Do Lunch

Shelburne Museum Guide Alice Thomas
While winding down from summer camps and gearing up for school programs, we (Paige and Angela) thought we would check in with the guide staff. Museum guides, stationed in twenty-five of our thirty-nine buildings, field a range of visitor inquiries. We knew we’d find a few of them enjoying lunch in the “Staff Only” section of the Museum CafĂ©, and on a recent afternoon, we sat down with Bill, Beth, Alice, Ellie and Hilda for a lovely meal.

Though curious at our arrival, they continued to reach into their plastic bags and containers of sandwiches, fruits, and other treats. To spark a friendly conversation, we asked them, “Has anything neat happened so far today?”

The guides told us that there was an English family and a German couple on the grounds. Alice took this as an opportunity to share the time when a group from the Middle East visited the museum. They went up to her husband Gerald, also a guide, and he surprised them all with his fluent Arabic. Alice explained that she and Gerald spent three years at the American naval base in Tripoli, Libya during the 1970s. She recalled the beautiful city and the warm weather; but above all, she recalled the male attention she used to receive in the marketplace. “They used to pinch you. If they thought you were good looking you could count on a pinch.” We all let out a good laugh.

They spoke for a minute or two about guide classes. Guides supplement their own research with morning classes on topics ranging from the gardens on the grounds to social media and networking in the museum world. Beth Thorpe told us about a favorite class that taught historic fabric dyeing techniques.

Shelburne Museum Guide Ellie Peters
The conversation then shifted to a frequent topic: how to best engage museum visitors. Ellie Peters enjoys asking children visiting the Stencil House which room is missing. It only takes a short investigation before they return with an answer: the bathroom! Unfortunately we don’t have the original outhouse associated with the home. Beth told us that many visitors immediately like Kalkin House, a modern gallery made of metal, glass and concrete. “They walk in and get visions,” she explains. Ellie chimes in, “They want to live there!”

Hilda said she was spending the day in Webb Gallery introducing visitors to In Fashion, our exhibition of 19th century and contemporary designer fashions. Beth leaned over conspiratorially to share that the best place to begin the daily gallery talk was in the “Complete the Look” room, which displays bodices from our collection paired with imaginative contemporary skirt designs by students at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Shelburne Museum Guide Beth Thorpe
Then, like clockwork, the guides packed up their belongings and set off to return to their posts. Of course, they made sure to bid everyone a hearty goodbye and warm wishes for a happy afternoon.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Long Recovery for a Secretary

Shelburne Museum was fortunate to come through Tropical Storm Irene unscathed. Many of our neighbors, especially in the southern part of the state, were not so fortunate and our hearts go out to them as they cope with the aftermath of this disaster of historic proportions.

As Vermonters have tried to come to terms with the damage wrought by Irene, comparisons to the Great Flood of 1927 have often been made.

The 1927 storm is the stuff of legend. Over three days in November, it destroyed over 1000 bridges, miles of roadways, and countless structures. Eighty-four people died as a result, including the lieutenant governor. UVM's Landscape Change Project includes many amazing pictures of the devastation in 1927 and what those very same places looked like in 2004. It is interesting to consider those images and amazing that we can still find evidence of that disaster in a piece of furniture in our collection.

In 2000, the museum acquired a piece of furniture that still bore damage from the 1927 flood. The bookcase and drop front desk, or secretary, made c. 1820-1840 by Royalton, VT cabinetmaker John Marshall (1787-1860), was donated to the museum by a descendent of its maker.

The bookcase portion of the John Marshall secretary before treatment in 2000.

The desk portion of the John Marshall secretary before treatment in 2000.

Made of rosewood and walnut veneers on poplar and pine, almost none of the original finish remained, either having been removed by water damage or an aborted attempt at repair and refinishing. All of the glass panes on the bookcase doors, except one, were lost. Half of the green wool cover, called baize, on the desk writing surface was lost; the other half was moth-eaten and faded. More challenging was that about 15% of the veneers were lost, including a large chunk of the book matched burl was missing from the top drawer front. Burl veneer is difficult to cut and thus is thicker. The chances of finding a contemporary piece of wood veneer that would be a good match would be slight at best.

Rather than using wood to fill this loss, I worked together with then post-graduate conservation intern Michaela Niero to make laminated paper veneers painted and varnished to imitate the burl, based on a flipped digital image of the remaining burl veneer on the opposite side of the drawer. We created paper laminate veneers that replicated other veneer losses too. The paper laminate was cut to fit and adhered in place using a reversible adhesive. While it would have been wonderful to use wood, the paper laminate is a pretty good visual replacement. The curators also asked me to replace the missing glass, drawer pull, and the baize as well as refinish the piece so that its surfaces looked appropriately uniform. A local wood turner made the replacement pull for the desk, appropriate glass was found at architectural salvage shops, and green baize was acquired for the desk top. An isolating layer of varnish was applied to the wood surfaces before new layers of varnish were applied to harmonize the disparate wood colors and uneven layers of varnish.

The secretary after treatment in 2000.

The secretary is now on view in the Dutton House. Though its not the same as it would have been had it not gone through the 1927 flood, it does have a very special provenance.

If you have works of art or family heirlooms that got wet during Tropical Storm Irene, there are a number of resources available to help you salvage (if they're still wet or muddy) and find help to conserve and restore them.